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The timetable at Les Etoiles de Pau CCI5* is always something of an abstract work of art, defying all the usual logic in favour of just a lot of jolly good vibes, and this year’s edition is no different: after the first horse inspection, which took place just as the sun made an appearance over the horizon at 8:30 this morning, we leapt into a teeny-tiny first session of dressage late this afternoon, which saw the first 12 of 47 combinations come forward for their tests. Oh, and in between the two? A whole heck of a lot of driven dressage, which is every bit as loopy and wonderful as it sounds. You haven’t experienced a reinback until you’ve experienced a reinback with a carriage attached, folks.
It’s fair to expect that, however our leaderboard looks at the end of today, it’ll be subject to a whole lot of change tomorrow — after all, twelve horses is hardly a drop in the ocean. But in these early ranks, we saw some serious quality, with four pairs dipping below the 30 margin and throwing down a serious early gauntlet — particularly in this year’s field, which is full of talented competitors but few out-and-out dressage supremos like last year’s winner, Laura Collett’s London 52. So today’s early and impressive efforts could — and arguably should — still feature in the upper echelons even at the end of tomorrow’s competition.
This field mixes riders with a wealth of experience with some seriously exciting debutants, and fittingly, one from each camp comes forward to share a joint lead overnight. William Fox-Pitt and Oratorio II, the son of his 2011 Pau victor Oslo Biats, posted a 27.4 halfway through proceedings, taking hold of the top spot despite a kick-out in the second of the changes.
“I was very pleased with how he went — though obviously we made a bit of a boo-boo in the one change,” says William wryly. “But overall, I’m really pleased with him. It won’t be a dressage competition, and he’s not here for the dressage — he’s here to get around the cross-country.”
William admits that twisty, technical Pau wouldn’t ordinarily be his first choice five-star for the gelding, who’s an out-and-out galloping type, but bad luck has plagued their season so far, and the pair made the trip to the south of France in a bid for redemption. They’d journeyed to the US in the spring for Kentucky, where they enjoyed a classy, competitive run — until a surprise blip late on course put them both on the floor. They then rerouted to Bicton last month, where once again, they looked excellent, but this time, Oratorio suffered a nosebleed — his first ever — on course, and William opted to pull him up.
“There was no real cause, but there have been lots of things we’ve been able to tweak and change,” he says. “There was nothing glaringly obvious, just a lot of little things — but nothing that should have meant he felt exhausted after three minutes. So we’re putting it behind us and looking ahead to Saturday.”
Joining William in the top spot is five-star debutant Ailsa Wates, who was the last rider in the ring this afternoon with her longtime partner Woodlands Persuasion. Together, they delivered a mature, polished test that saw them trending in the low 20s, until a mistake in the third flying change threw the 22-year-old rider’s focus for a moment and saw their 7.5s and 8s drop to 3s and 4s for a movement.
“He’s pretty amazing — he should have got a better score, but I had a bit of a blunder,” says Ailsa. “I did the change a tiny bit early, and then I looked up and saw my mum and everybody, and I think I was thinking so much about how I’d done the change too early that I wasn’t thinking about where I was going. But he was really good in all the other bits, and he’s felt really good all week. He loves coming to a big show because he feels like he’s super important, being here on his own, and I think he was really happy to be in there.”
Nevertheless, their work in the ring made the gathered crowd sit up and take notice — and loudest among Ailsa’s cheerleading squad was fellow debutant Sofia Sjoborg, who does her own test in tomorrow’s line-up. The two girls have competed against one another for years, striking up a strong friendship while riding at the Junior European Championships — where each rode the same horses they’re on this week — and then going on to work together at Michael Jung’s yard in Germany.
“Sofia’s horse and mine have had the same sort of career the whole way through, so it’s so nice that they’re doing their first five-star together,” says Ailsa, who fondly describes her horse as “a spoiled brat — my mum actually started him off and he was really spoiled by her, and he just knows that he’s a superstar! He always rises to the occasion.”
It was at Jung’s base that Ailsa decided she wanted to make a go of eventing professionally, rather than allowing her teenage passion to peter out once she’d aged out of Young Riders.
“I worked there for three years after I left school, and at that point, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to ride full-time or not. But as soon as I went there and saw how he trained, and got help from him, I thought, ‘I definitely want to do this as a job!'”
After that, she moved to the iconic Hickstead showground to work for Irish showjumper Shane Breen and then, when the pandemic started, she moved back home to set up on her own at the family yard. Now, as a fully-fledged young professional, she’s certainly making a strong impression in her top-level debut.
The week’s trailblazer, Oliver Townend, began the competition with an exceptional test on new-old ride Ridire Dorcha, who he previously produced to CCI4*-L before selling on to now-owner Sophie Adams in 2017. Recently, Sophie decided to focus more of her time and attention on building her own business, and asked Oliver if he’d take the ride back for a stint — and now, although he hasn’t run an international with the gelding since 2017, he’s paired up with him once again to tackle the horse’s first five-star.
“He’s a progressive horse,” says Oliver. “We’d sold him to Australia from a business point of view, and he’s been over there and come back with his owner, Sophie, who’s decided to base herself [in the UK]. She’s been concentrating on making a living, and she said, ‘do you want to have a go with him while I concentrate on other things?’ I’m very happy to have the ride on him; Sophie’s a good mate, and I’m very glad that he’s progressed and showed good form here.”
Today, they posted a 27.8 that defied expectations: Ridire Dorcha has never been a first-phase supremo, and ordinarily scores in the 30s or even the 40s, most recently. A few times in his partnership with Oliver, he’d showed hints of something more — in their last competition together at Boekelo in 2017, they scored a 27.9, for example — but no one would have reasonably expected the gelding to pull out a comparable mark in his first five-star test after so many years out of Oliver’s string. That’s just what he did, though, producing the goods in workmanlike fashion to set the early standard for the class, despite their lack of match practice together.
“I’ve not been [at home] a lot, but every time I’m there, I ride him. I don’t think that horses progress from being constantly hammered; when I work them I do work them very thoroughly and in a very calm and quiet and soft way, and then I disappear and all they do is lunge or hack or go up the gallops. No one else schools them but me. So he knows me, and I think he’s trusting me a lot more and he’s a lot calmer in himself.”
British under-25 champion Bubby Upton‘s CCI5* debut has been hotly anticipated, not just by the rider herself but by the UK’s eventing fans, who’ve cheered the young rider on as she’s worked her way through the junior and young rider rankings to become a young, hungry professional (as well as, impressively, a full-time student). After nailing down her qualifications last season, she’d hoped to try for a Badminton debut this spring, but the pandemic cancellation put paid to that idea. Then, she mentally rerouted herself to Bicton’s one-off five-star, but a crashing fall sidelined her for several weeks and forced her to miss out once again.
“It wasn’t really possible with a broken collarbone and a broken vertebrae,” says Bubby, who was in hospital for several days but walked again at the end of the first week and, remarkably, rode again two weeks after her accident.
“It wasn’t because I was ready, or because it was a good idea, but more as a way to see how long I had before I could compete again,” she explains. “But as the ride went on, I felt better and better. At first, I was only riding two a day for a few weeks, and then Wellington Advanced was my first event back four weeks after the accident — which, in hindsight, wasn’t great because it was massive! I wasn’t riding my best there; I was pretty indecisive, which isn’t like me. But then about six weeks after the accident I was back in my groove and I felt really good — and as of the last two weeks, I think I’m fully back.”
Now, she’s finally made it to her debut, and for good measure, she’s brought two horses along for the ride. Today’s mount was the stalwart Cola, with whom she became the Young Rider Reserve European Champion in 2019 and who has finished in the top ten three times at four-star this season. It’s always bold to expect that a horse might score as he does at four-star in his five-star debut, but Cola did just that today, delivered a smart 28.5 consistent with his previous performances. That’s good enough to put them in fourth overnight, with Bubby’s second ride, Cannavaro, still to come tomorrow.
“I’ve got a long way to go and then I think I can be excited,” she laughs. “But I was really pleased with him — he’s quite professional and he’s been lucky enough to go to the Europeans and things like that with the atmosphere, so even though he started off quite spooky around the outside, as soon as I entered on the centerline, he was like, ‘okay, mum, I’ve got it.’ And yeah, it was good to get a [five-star test done], but it’s not much different to to any other event!”
Ever the professional, she was quick to praise her horse, and equally quick to look for the pieces she can improve upon next time.
“On the three-quarter line the changes are very exposed, so they show off every weakness,” she says. “There’s a lot more to come there — but to get this kind of score, knowing there’s more to come, is really reassuring.”
Finally, Izzy Taylor rounds out the top ten on her five-star debutant Ringwood Madras, who was previously produced by fellow Brit Ben Way and with whom she finished fourth at both Blair Castle CCI4*-L and Little Downham CCI4*-S. The ten-year-old mare trended well down in the 20s for much of her test but lost some marks in the canter work to ultimately earn a solid 31.2 — a super result for a mare who has done just seven previous FEI competitions and has regularly scored in the upper 30s.
Tomorrow takes us into a full day of dressage action, kicking off at 10.00 a.m. local time/9.00 a.m. UK/4.00 a.m. Eastern. You can find all the times — and a running leaderboard — here, and the whole thing will be available to follow along via Horse&Country TV’s livestream. As always, we’ll be bringing you a full report tomorrow afternoon, so keep it locked on to EN and as always, Go Eventing!